In the run-up to, and wake of, the release of Watchmen, it has become common currency to say that adapting Zach Snyder, et al undertook a massive challenge in adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ complex, sprawling medium- and genre-defining work for the screen.
But I’m going to suggest that they actually undertook an even more massive challenge: adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ complex, sprawling medium- and genre-defining work for the screen – and completely missing its point.
If you haven’t seen or read Watchmen and/or don’t know the story:
a) where have you been for the last 25 years?
b) Spoiler warning.
Actually, I take b) back. I can’t do anything to spoil this film that wasn’t already done during its production.
Based on his filmography to date, Zack Snyder seems to have three affinities in his work. First, he likes apocalyptic settings (consider the post-societal zombie chaos of Dawn of the Dead, the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it mass-suicide pact plot of 300, and now Watchmen, with its doomsday clock set permanently at five to midnight). Second, he likes to adapt other peoples’ work (Dawn of the Dead is a remake; 300 and Watchmen are adaptations). Normally, I wouldn’t dwell on source-to-final-product comparisons, but I think Snyder’s remake/adapt-only resume makes it fair. And third, he tends to equate violence with authority.
This last point is perhaps the one that deserves the most attention. In Dawn of the Dead, it at least makes sense. Key to the zombie genre is the failure of any centralized authority or social narrative. (Side note: within the genre this theme is dealt with most directly and interestingly in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, which is why I’m more forgiving of its flaws than many.) Violence becomes a way to reestablish some semblance of what you could call, for lack of a better term, natural order: you can kill someone and make sure they stay dead. (More on all this here.) But Snyder’s remake omits the social context that makes Romero’s Dawn of the Dead resonant. What we end up with is a movie without contrast, a movie that’s violent just because it can be. Not bad, just thoughtless.
In 300, violence is the raison d’etre for an entire society. It’s hard to lay too much blame at Snyder’s video-assist monitor here, either; he’s being faithful to his the source material, Frank Miller’s graphic novel, where the individual is lost in the phalanx and “fascist aesthetics celebrate the ecstatic and transcendent purity of death.” (Thanks, Carol.) I earlier referred to Snyder’s 300 as an adaptation, and that is perhaps inaccurate. It would more correctly be called a transliteration, a(n ironically) slavish panel-for-panel, word-for-word reproduction of Miller’s book, without any real consideration given to the differences between the two media. Again, the most apt word to describe 300, despite its technical achievements, seems to me to be “thoughtless.”
Which brings us to Watchmen. One of the key ideas in Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen is that the idea of the superhero (at least, as considered in a “real world” context) is inherently fascist. Putting on a mask, rejecting the consensus of society and meting out your own justice – taken to its logical conclusion, as it is in Watchmen, it leads to a holocaust. And it’s a holocaust that the costumed heroes of Watchmen are powerless to prevent (“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”), because they’re all complicit in the system that brought it about.
There are references to fascism, Nazism and perverted Nietzschean and Randian philosophy throughout Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, not least in their adaptation of Steve Ditko’s The Question into Rorschach. What they were doing, they were doing consciously, and with conscious intent. They were telling a story about fascism, not a fascist story. (Side note: there’s obviously much more to Watchmen than this one trope – its formal boldness, genre playfulness, originality and expansion of the accepted limits of the medium are all equally important – just not here.)
Zack Snyder, on the other hand, is telling a fascist story.
Violence has ultimate authority in Snyder’s Watchmen in terms of the plot, where the tempering, introspective and contrasting (there’s that word again) elements of the graphic novel are stripped away (Rorschach’s visit to Ozymandias in the opening chapter is especially curious). All the characters that have succeeded have succeeded through violence, and those who have failed (most notably Nite Owl) have failed because they’re too afraid to embrace violence. It’s only when Nite Owl (with the help of Silk Spectre) brutally beats a gang of muggers that he’s able to begin to assert himself.
That fight scene also highlights the fact that Snyder’s Watchmen privileges violence in terms of its production, as well. Bones snap through skin directly into the camera. Necks snap. Knives go through necks. It’s not really a fight – it’s a series of barely-motivated murders.
And Snyder’s camera loves it. His gore sequences take place in gynecological slow motion – a detached prodding and peering that removes body parts (both figuratively and literally) from the person to whom they belong. He lingers on the effects that allow him to show vicious injuries, not on the effects of injuries. He applies the same aesthetic to the sequence that recounts the attempted rape of the (Golden Age) Silk Spectre. Her beating comes in whooshes of slow motion that paradoxically leave no time for us to identify or empathize with her, or to consider the contextual horror of what’s happening. It’s all about the action. It’s all about the act. And the act is an act of violence.
By the time Snyder’s sluggish 163-minute narrative finally got around to revealing the inscription that reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” I had only one thought: Already there, Zack. Already there.
Ian Driscoll also has a short story about that sex scene in the Owlship: no.